State seeks longer red-snapper season in federal proposal

March 17, 2018 GMT

A proposal to shift part of the responsibility and authority for managing recreational harvest of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico to individual states could result in Texas’ offshore anglers this year and next seeing their longest red-snapper seasons in federally controlled waters in a decade - as many as 104 days and at least 64 days for anglers fishing from private boats and 51 days for those fishing from for-hire vessels operating under federal reef-fish fishing permits, according to estimates by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

In April, the federal National Marine Fisheries Service will decide the fate of pending applications by Texas and the four other Gulf-bordering states for Exempted Fishing Permits that would allow the individual states to set the length and start/stop dates of recreational fishing season for red snapper in federally controlled waters off their coasts. The permits would be effective for the 2018 and 2019 calendar years.

“We believe it’s an opportunity that would benefit our anglers, if approved,” Lance Robinson, deputy director Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s coastal fisheries division, said of the Exempted Fishing Permit proposal the agency submitted in February.

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Quota changes eyed

The Exempted Fishing Permit would include provisions that give each state a portion of the Gulf-wide annual recreational catch quota of red snapper - the most popular reef fish in the Gulf and subject of decades of controversy over federal management that has seen opportunity for anglers to harvest snapper in federally controlled waters wither from a year-round fishery until 1996 to as few as nine days in 2014 even as red-snapper numbers exploded.

Currently, the starting date and length of the recreational fishing season for red snapper is set by federal fisheries officials and applies to all Gulf of Mexico waters under federal authority. Off Texas, that federal water begins nine nautical miles from shore, where the state’s jurisdictional boundary ends. Federal officials have since 2008 set June 1 as the opening date of Gulf-wide recreational snapper fishing.

The annual recreational quota, expressed in pounds of fish, also is set by federal fisheries officials and determined by a congressionally mandated management plan designed to rebuild the red-snapper population after decades of unregulated commercial and recreational harvest saw the Gulf-wide population drop to record lows in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

After more than two decades of management, the Gulf-wide red snapper population has increased significantly and is no longer considered overfished. Current catch quotas are designed to limit harvest to a level that will allow the fishery to continue growing and reach a target population goal by 2032.

While the Gulf-wide snapper population and the annual recreation catch quota have increased, the recreational fishing season has continued shrinking.

With more abundant snapper, anglers are catching more fish faster. And the average weight of fish being kept by anglers has increased, harvest surveys indicate. The Gulf-wide federal-waters recreational season length is based on federal estimates of how many days it will take anglers to land their annual quota of snapper.

The current one-size-fits-all system of recreational red-snapper quotas and season dates puts Texas anglers at a disadvantage.

The June 1 opening of federal-water snapper season comes at a time when windy conditions most days make seas in the western Gulf of Mexico uncomfortable, unsafe or impossible for sportfishing vessels to navigate. This is not the case in the eastern Gulf, where June weather and seas are generally milder and anglers can find good concentrations of snapper within a dozen miles or so of shore. (Off most of Texas, good snapper habitat is 20 miles or more offshore.)

“Texas anglers are penalized with an arbitrary June 1 start date,” Robinson said, noting potential fishing days lost to poor weather carry an outsized cost to the state’s anglers, robbing them of valuable opportunity during short federal-water snapper seasons.

That cost is reflected in how Texas’ percentage of the Gulf-wide snapper catch has declined with the increasingly shorter seasons.

“Historically, Texas accounted for about 20 percent of the Gulf-wide recreational snapper catch,” Robinson said. “Now, that’s dropped to six to 10 percent.”

That is not for lack of snapper.

Recent Gulf-wide research indicates waters off Texas are home to 42.1 percent of the red-snapper biomass (total weight of fish) in U.S.-controlled waters of the Gulf of Mexico, far more than any other state. Florida waters are second with an estimated 29.9 percent of the snapper biomass, with Louisiana third at 20.3 percent.

While Texas holds more than 40 percent of the Gulf’s red-snapper biomass, the state’s private-boat anglers accounted for only 5.5 percent of the 2006-15 snapper landings. Two eastern Gulf states - Florida and Alabama, with a combined 36.2 percent of the red snapper biomass - accounted for 75.2 percent of the 2006-15 snapper landings by private-boat anglers.

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Texas’ numbers in flux

In its EFP application, which NMFS this past year invited states to submit, Texas requests federal officials allocate 16 percent of the Gulf-wide annual recreational allowable catch limit to the state.

If federal managers set the 2018 and 2019 annual catch limits (pound quotas) for the recreational fishery at the same 6.6 million pounds as in 2017), Texas’ share would be about 1.1 million pounds.

Federal officials have indicated they are not comfortable with Texas’ request, which would cover all recreational fishing for red snapper, from private boats, state-permitted charter-for-hire vessels and charter-for-hire vessels (head boats, charter boats) operating under federal reef fish permits.

Federal officials indicated they would like to see Texas reduce its request by almost 366,000 pounds - the difference between the long-term average landings of Texas’ charter-for-hire fleet and that fleet’s 2016 landings.

Under Texas’ original EFP proposal with its share request of 1.1 million pounds, combining the private-boat and for-hire components of the fishery and projecting 24,000 anglers participating in the snapper fishery, the state estimates it could allow a 104-day season in federal waters and continue its 365-day season in state waters. If for-hire vessels remain under current federal-set rules and the quota applied only to the private-boat sector, private-boat anglers’ federal-water season off Texas would run 82 days.

Under the NMFS suggested allotment of 711,599 pounds, the private-boat season in federal waters still could run 82 days.

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More days to fish

Even under a scenario in which the lower allocation is set and applies to all recreational red-snapper anglers (private boats and for-hire vessels), the season would run 64 days - the longest since a 77-day snapper season in 2008.

Under both scenarios, Texas would retain its year-round recreational snapper season in state waters with Texas bag and size limits (four snapper per day, 15-inch minimum) applying for fishing inside nine nautical miles. Federal regulations - two snapper per day, 16-inch minimum - would apply outside nine nautical miles.

Under terms of an EFP, Texas would be responsible for monitoring angler’s catches, keeping a running tally of landings and agreeing to close federal waters to recreational snapper fishing if the quota is reached before the season expires. Texas has over the past couple of years increased and refined its collection of harvest data from offshore anglers, increasing those samplings by 300 percent, Robinson said. Increased voluntary use by anglers of the iSnapper reporting application on smartphones also has helped improve harvest monitoring, he said.

The agency is soliciting public comments on the proposal through its website - tpwd.texas.gov - with an April 3 deadline for those comments. TPWD also will hold three public meetings to explain the proposal and seek public input. Those meetings, all set for March 27 and beginning at 7 p.m., will be held at the Hilton Hotel-Clear Lake’s Atlantis Room, 3000 NASA Parkway, Houston; Texas A&M-Corpus Christi’s Natural Resources Building, Room 1003, 6300 Ocean Drive, Corpus Christi; and Port Isabel Event and Cultural Center, 309 East Railroad, Port Isabel.

It is far from certain that federal officials will approve issuance of EFPs. NMFS has said it will consider the proposals and come to a decision by mid-April.

Also, federal officials have not set the 2018 allowable catch limit for the recreational red snapper fishery; that decision also is expected sometime in April. That annual quota may well be set lower than last year’s, which would require states to reduce length of federal-water seasons if their EFP applications are approved.

If federal officials do not approve EFP applications, management of the fishery would continue under Gulf-wide rules set by federal officials. That almost certainly would mean private-boat anglers fishing for red snapper in waters under federal jurisdiction would see a 2018 season beginning June 1 and lasting less than a week.